Maluma Shows He’s a Versatile Pop Star Who’s Here to Stay on New Album ‘F.A.M.E.’

Lead Photo: Maluma. Photo courtesy of Beats 1.
Maluma. Photo courtesy of Beats 1.
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After releasing his first album Magia at just 18, Maluma found his niche as reggaeton’s new golden boy. He sang upbeat tracks like “Obsesión” and “Miss Independent” that reflected the genre’s pop-ification, as the industry moved reggaeton from its gritty hip-hop roots and into radio-friendly territory. The Colombian artist was presented to the world as clean-cut and perfectly coiffed, a romantic with just a hint of insolence. But as he delved deeper into the world of urbano, it became obvious that he’d need to work a tougher strain of grit and danger into his currency.

Maluma kicked off this evolution with 2015’s Pretty Boy, Dirty Boy and steamier singles with Shakira. Then, he threw down the gauntlet with his controversial ”Cuatro Babys,” a track that positioned the singer as a swaggering lothario with a rotating harem of women in and out of his bed. The backlash was forceful and merited, as indignant listeners called out the song’s objectifying message; a petition circulated to have it removed from digital platforms. Maluma was hardly fazed, as he posted an apology on Instagram and later followed the single with “Felices Los 4,” the first sample of his third album F.A.M.E., out now. The song was another hosanna to non-monogamy, this time softened by lyrics that centered on free love, but it left fans curious about what other turns for the shocking might make it onto Maluma’s new music.

F.A.M.E. doesn’t shock. Instead, it’s a carefully measured effort to calculate the direction toward which the Latin pop mainstream is hurdling. The 15 tracks on the album reflect today’s tangled state of reggaeton, as the genre tries to find footing amid a torrent of pop, electronic, R&B, and hip-hop influences. Maluma’s approach isn’t the brash, blow-it-all-to-bits reinvention of J Balvin, or the wild trap-inspired impudence of Bad Bunny. Instead, he’s is a more restrained pop star who leverages his vocal strength and sense of harmony into creations that are commercially viable.

A bulk of the music could be categorized as progeny from the post-“Despacito” era. Maluma has a penchant for acoustic, steel-string instrumentation, akin to the guitars that curled across Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s viral hit, and similar arrangements appear here, refracted on mid-tempo radio hits, like “El Prestamo” and “Corazón.” By including the Brazilian rapper Nego de Borel over a tinkering steel drum beat on the latter track, Maluma also deploys the kind of sound many listeners registered as globally ambiguous and internationally transferable, similar to what Balvin has done by buttressing Afro-Caribbean rhythms with features from foreign artists like Anitta and Willy William.

Songs titled “Hangover,” “I Like It,” and “Unfollow” initially suggested that F.A.M.E. might be Maluma’s big English-language attempt. One of the most salient platitudes in the current reggaeton discussion has been that in today’s increasingly globalized music markets, language is no longer a barrier. This seems like a questionable argument, given how quickly Spanish-language artists revert into novelties among Anglo audiences, but Maluma sticks to his plan and continues on his path as a primarily Spanish-speaking star. Aside from a few ad-libs and verses on “I Like It,” he doesn’t worry too much about appeasing Anglo listeners. “What can be better than for us to sing in Spanish everywhere we go?” he asked in a recent interview with Billboard.

The crossover conversation lurks instead in the collaborations. Maluma assembles a crew of American artists who do the heavy lifting in English: Jason Derulo, Maluma’s recent partner on a World Cup anthem, surfaces for some spiky dembow on “La Ex,” and takes a valiant crack at spitting out a few ad-libs in Spanish; Timbaland and Sid get credits on the R&B-tinged “Mi Declaración.” Prince Royce, who has made English-language plays of his own, joins Maluma on “Hangover,” a poppier song about partying gone out of hand that really doesn’t comfort anyone still offended over “Cuatro Babys.” None of the collabs stand out as obvious viral smashes, but they adhere to the current trend of exchanging visibility among artists and establish Maluma in the English-language urbano word.

What is clear is Maluma’s musicality as a ballad singer and writer. In another life, if música urbana hadn’t quite taken off the way it has, Maluma might have followed the footsteps of Chayanne or an early Alejandro Sanz. His tone is rounder and darker than the high-pitched leanings of artists like Ozuna and Romeo Santos, and therefore bears more of a resemblance to classic Latin pop. Although his lyrics occasionally border on the schmaltzy, Maluma writes (and co-writes) in a way that channels the 90s tradition of romance en español, like on his song “Marinero.” He strikes the best balance between this throwback style and modernity by exploring the slinkier turns of R&B, like on “Unfollow” and the immediately addictive “Condena.”

Maluma rode the wave that reggaeton’s popularity provided and used it to achieve stardom, although his version of the genre will always be more pop-oriented than the hardcore sounds pioneered by black Panamanian and Puerto Rican artists. At a time when reggaeton transforms in the pop market, Maluma fits comfortably into the current moment. He’s helped by the fact that his image affords him some cross-genre dexterity, which opens possibilities to do things like spin “Felices Los 4” into a salsa jam featuring Marc Anthony. His music may occasionally feel conventionally trendy rather than forward-thinking, but Maluma’s ability to traverse genres buys him longevity in Latin pop.

Maluma’s F.A.M.E. is out now on Sony Music Entertainment.